Last year saw the rise of several innovative features in MMORPGs, but few held as much promise for future games as open tagging, which is perhaps best described as the chance for every player who participates in a fight to receive experience and loot regardless of whether they’re grouped or not, or was the first character to hit an enemy. (In many MMOs, such as World of Warcraft, only the first person to deal damage or “tag” an enemy will earn loot and experience from the kill, even if another player winds up doing most of the damage to it.) It made the biggest splash in Guild Wars 2, where it encouraged cooperation in the many dynamic events scattered throughout the leveling experience. By year’s end, other MMORPGs had incorporated the concept, most notably the new expansions for Rift and Lord of the Rings Online. And yet the genre’s dominant game, World of Warcraft, resisted embracing the concept fully. Let’s find out why.
Mists of Pandaria did introduce some concessions, such as open tagging for named enemy quest targets, and Patch 5.2, scheduled for release in the coming weeks, extends the concept to world bosses–provided the boss was tapped by a member of your own faction. But that, according to World of Warcraft Lead Content Designer Ion Hazzikostas, is enough. Hazzikostas doesn’t foresee a future where open tagging extends to every enemy NPC in WoW, partly because he believes it ruins some of the social appeal of playing an MMO.
“I think all of us who play MMOs realize that it can be frustrating to compete with fellow players for loot rights or tap rights on a mob,” Hazzikostas said, “but at the same time, there are important social interactions that come out of those moments.” Having to compete with a fellow player from the same faction, he says, lends some weight to encounter that they might not otherwise have and occasionally, for better or for worse, leads to player interaction.
It also sometimes leads to abuse of the system. “Part of the concern with open, free-for-all, open-tapping is that a lot of the game becomes more about tapping everything and tagging everything a little bit, especially when other players have already tapped them” he said. “Thirty seconds later, your quest completes because the other people killed them all. That’s not an ideal way to feel like you’re engaging in combat.” Guild Wars 2 requires a considerable degree of participation to get credit, but I’d seen evidence of Hazzikostas’ concerns myself during my recent adventures in Rift’s Storm Legion expansion, where the comparatively lax open tagging rules resulted in fellow players tossing a couple of arrows or spells on the enemies I was fighting for credit.
The Name of the Enemy
For Hazzikostas, the concept works best when it’s left to named quest targets subject to respawn timers. In the past, players had to contend with other players spamming area-of-effect spells on the spawn sites in the hope of tagging the enemy. “We never wanted the hardest thing about completing a quest to be waiting around for the thing respawn so you can get the tap.” Even so, this scenario presents its own challenges. As an example, Hazzikostas points to Vicejaw, a crocolisk boss sometimes encountered while undertaking the Golden Lotus faction’s daily quests. The general idea is that Vicejaw is immune to attacks from the front, and you’re thus supposed to lead him over a pile of corpses so he gorges on them and gets sick. To finish him off, you attack him from behind while he’s stunned.
“That experience only plays out for the roughly 1 percent of our playerbase who are playing at five in the morning,” Hazzikostas said, laughing. “Typically, three or four people are already there, so one person kites it around and the other three just stand behind him and kill it. The experience is over in 15-20 seconds.” As a means of ensuring that such open-tap bosses remain fun, Hazzikostas relates that Blizzard plans on scaling their health based on how many people are on the tap list. “We want to keep the feeling that you’re not honestly competing with fellow faction players while retaining some of the epic combat experience.” Increasing the health pools, he believes, is a step in the right direction.
Yet the biggest change to come with patch 5.2 is faction tagging for world bosses, which allows all players from the same faction to share loot for a boss if they participated in the fight. Hazzikostas says they’re still working on the details of how much participation is required, but he believes this change will improve the experience of WoW as a whole. “The notion of tagging doesn’t scale very well to raid sizes,” Hazzikostas said. With normal enemies, he said, it’s reasonable for two ungrouped players killing boars to claim a tag on the one they hit. “When you have two raid groups of 30 people from the same faction that both want to lay claim to a single target,” he said, “that ends up feeling much more arbitrary.” Hazzikostas claims the shift also acknowledges awkward looting situations. With the current looting rules, it’s possible for a player with loot rights in one raid to switch to another raid and share those loot rights with them. “What we’re doing in 5.2 is just implementing that system in the game by default. If 60 players participated in a boss kill, they should all have a shot at the loot.”
Hazzikostas added that these improvements would come at the cost of more challenging encounters. Some world bosses like the Sha of Anger, he points out, are designed to be accessible by pick-up groups of random players, much like the instanced bosses in the Vault of Archavon and Baradin Hold from the two previous expansions. Yanking such boss encounters out of instances also improved the experience for players who aren’t in raiding guilds. When you ride out into Kun-Lai Summit and see the Sha of Anger looming on the horizon, he said, “that’s one of those cool, epic massively multiplayer moments that we’re trying to deliver.”
The Wreck of the Galleon
Other bosses, however, such as a lumbering Stegosaurus-type boss named Galleon, were intended for structured guilds. It didn’t work out that way. “Galleon was intended to be like an Azuregos or Lord Kazzak throwback,” Hazzikostas said, referring to two outdoor raid bosses from Classic WoW. “The two problems with him were that he was too easy and right near a highly trafficked area. Because he was so easy, people felt like the challenge was actually getting the tap and being there when he spawned, not actually defeating him.”
That all changes with new world bosses like the dandied-up T-Rex Oondasta, who’s closer to what he and the team originally had in mind. “He’s in a much more remote location and in an area where you can’t actually fly–it’s not a place where your average player is going to go waiting for the boss to spawn,” he said. “The basic boss mechanics are also much, much, much more punishing to pickup groups. If you’re not spread out for his lightning attack, for instance, you’re going to die.” It’s hard to miss the satisfaction in his voice when he adds that none of the pick-up groups on the test server have come close to killing it so far, faction-tagging or no. “When he spawns, it’s not about getting there first.”
Despite his reservations, Hazzikostas says Blizzard remains open to extending open tapping to other aspects of World of Warcraft’s questing experience. “We’re definitely looking for something more along the lines of personalized looting or tapping for quest objects on the ground.” As it is, he believes, the current competition tends to ruin the experience. “It’s actually often more time consuming to finish those quests with people helping you than it is on your own, and that’s very contrary to our goal of making playing with your friends more rewarding.” When I asked, along those same lines, if World of Warcraft would ever feature open tagging on resource nodes for mining and herbalism as in Guild Wars 2, Hazzikostas was less enthusiastic. The impact on the in-game economy, he said, would be devastating. “They’re two very different systems,” he said.
For my part, having experienced most of the new MMOs that embrace open tagging, I’ve come to appreciate World of Warcraft’s approach again. WoW might no longer be quite as social as it used to be, but I’ve found that I still enjoy grouping with other players to tackle daily quests or form a leveling team for a particular zone more so than I do in many other MMOs. In other MMOs, paradoxically, open tagging seems to discourage conversations of any sort. In WoW, I talk more with other players (even if I’m merely arguing), and of course it thrives on the constant tension of competing for taps against players in the opposite faction. That, at least, will never be absent from the coming boss battles.
“We’ll never want players from different factions to work together,” he said.